If he was a superstitious man, Giustino Riccio might have seen his nightmare as a sign.
More than a year ago, the musician and lunchtime server at Galley dreamed that the owners knocked down the wall between Galley and the Mandarin Palace restaurant next door. Inspired by the extra space, he'd built them a wood-fired pizza oven. Where it became a nightmare was in the making of the pizzas, which he recalls as "melting like in a Dali painting." The next day, he told a co-worker about the crazy dream.
Six months later, Galley co-owner Chris DiLauro came to Riccio and asked if he wanted to make pizza in a space that the restaurant was planning to acquire — the former Mandarin Palace — and christen Galley Go-To. Cue unsettling music.
Riccio, a longtime percussionist with Bio Ritmo, had been making pizza for fun for a dozen years at that point, but only at home for friends. To impress a new woman he was dating, he made pizza and while a cornmeal spill caused some serious smoke in the process, she's now his wife. That's powerful pizza.
Along the roofline, the new Galley Go-To sports a red Galley sign with a neon pagoda atop it, a vestige of its former tenant. A smaller sign over the market's front door reads Mandarin Palace Restaurant. But walk inside, head toward the back and you'll know you're in the right place when you spot the red neon Giustino's Pizza sign hanging from the ceiling. It was a surprise to Riccio from Galley's owners.
The gas-powered pizza ovens were installed in February and that's when Riccio's six months of dough-making experiments began in earnest. "Those ovens are half the reason the pizzas taste like they do, because I tailored the dough to the ovens," he explains. "It's all about respecting the ovens. If we got new ones, I'd have to do a new dough recipe."
His pizza is defined by its dough. It makes for a Neapolitan-like thin crust, with a puffy outer lip that's crunchy on the outside and soft and chewy on the inside, like a good baguette. He prefers to keep toppings to a select few, believing that limiting the palette results in greater creativity. Four pizzas in, I haven't gotten beyond the Bianca, sublimely simple with house mozzarella, Gorgonzola, garlic, black pepper and olive oil.
Being a percussionist before he was a pizza-maker is key. He says if he hadn't been a musician for 26 years, he wouldn't be able to make pizza. "What I learned from playing in Bio Ritmo was that we weren't going to be the best salsa band ever, but we were unique. As long as my pizza is unique and no one else in Richmond is doing it, I'm satisfied."
Recently, an older customer told him it was the best pizza in Richmond because it reminded him of the pizza he grew up with in New Jersey. A Garden State native himself, Riccio asked where specifically, only to learn they were both from Jersey City.
"I somehow replicated that without even trying to," he says grinning. "To me, that's a compliment."
Working 14-hour days since Galley Market opened its doors Oct. 30, Riccio has had a ridiculously busy couple of months, but he's added a way to blow off steam to his arsenal of kitchen supplies.
"I have a conga back there and when I get feeling crazy, I bang on that for a while. Plus there's that dream that I had and that helps when I'm feeling down."
Giustino's Pizza 11 a.m. – 9 p.m. daily, inside Galley Go-To, 2811 Hathaway Road